By Steve Doughty
Wipf & Stock, March 2015, 148 pp.
In this excerpt from his book, The Man with Six Typewriters, Steve Doughty offers an evocative exploration of contemporary spiritual seeking.
Thou hast formed us for Thyself,
and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.
The seeker appears in a host of forms. Sometimes I encounter the seeker because I am a minister. Or I meet the seeker in a friend. Or the seeker ambushes me as I read a favorite author or sit with a family member I thought I knew inside and out. Every time I am in the presence of the seeker I receive a gift. I rediscover my own search.
The seeker held a space for me every third Monday, 7:15 a.m., at Panera Bread in Kalamazoo. He was my age, even my size and general appearance. The first time we met I liked him instantly. On the matter of religious belief, he had no use for “the Big Guy in the Sky.” That notwithstanding, he had come to believe in God. He grew up with no religious instruction and could say precisely when and where belief came. He was in early middle age, at the nadir of a difficult siege in his life, and walking across the tarmac at an airport. Belief hit him like the blast from a jet engine. He resisted calling himself a Christian because of the cramped attitudes he saw in a lot of people so identifying themselves. Still, every Sunday he worshiped at the church of which he had become an active member. That Jesus should be the actual son of God puzzled him. He read Reinhold Niebuhr. The Bible was a struggle. When we met we talked about all of the above plus politics, poetry, sex, and death, all of which plunged us right back into religion. He forced me to think, laugh, and give thanks. Our meetings persisted for five years and stopped only when I moved away.
Three times the seeker came to that same Panera as a brilliant young woman. An honors graduate of a fine university and a gifted writer, she found work reporting for a newspaper in the Northeast. She had never joined a church, but that didn’t stop somebody at the newspaper from offering her the religion assignment and it didn’t stop her from saying “Sure.” She swiftly found herself in the midst of worshiping Baptist and Greek Orthodox Christians, and, of course, mellowing things out a bit, New England Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Quakers. After eight months she came home for a visit. Somebody suggested to both of us that we talk. When we did, her delight in what she was finding nearly overwhelmed me. I read some of her pieces. Every one of them moved me. If she had been raised from birth as a Presbyterian or, say, a Roman Catholic, or any of the groups she wrote of, would she have seen with such freshness and breadth? I have no idea. I do know that the following fall she went back to school to study theology and deepen her understanding of what she found so life-giving.
The seeker came to church one day as a truck driver. Earlier in the week, I conducted the funeral for his mother. Aside from the funeral I had never seen him in church. At some point during the service he heard the words, “I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord.” He had been invited to pray and he had been prayed for. On the way out of church the following Sunday he took my hand and said, “I just thought I’d come.” His face stayed solemn. After that he rarely missed a week. When we visited in his mobile home he never asked any questions, and I felt it best not to force them. He liked to talk about his gladiolas. The solemnity left him as he sat in the pew Sunday after Sunday. His face remained forever attentive and gradually grew bright.
The seeker came one afternoon as a couple wanting to get married. They were wary of church in any form. In the name of Christ, persons had deeply hurt their gay and lesbian friends. The man, an educator, had been harassed by fundamentalists for teaching evolution. The two wished no part in such things. Yet they did not want a secular wedding. They wanted prayers and, although they weren’t quite sure why, they wanted a minister. “What we really want is God!” the woman finally blurted out, half laughing. “Does that make any sense at all?” As they explored the matter, it did. At this vital juncture in their lives, they wanted, as the man put it, “the living Presence we know is real but has been so blocked from us.”
Four men stood to be received into their novitiate year in the Order of Saint Benedict. I sat in the choir with their families and friends. As the men faced the Abbot, we had a perfect view of them, three in their twenties, one middle-aged. The Abbot reminded them of the single requirement for entering the monastery at this point: they must truly be seeking God. He instructed them to live in humility with their brothers. During the year ahead they would continue to discern God’s direction for their lives and whether to take their final vows. The year would be difficult. Did they truly desire to enter? With a united voice,“Yes,” they did. The Abbot looked to the black-robed brothers stretching behind them. Did the brothers receive them? “Yes. Thanks be to God!” The Abbot invited the novices forward one-by-one and presented each with a robe. The four removed their suit coats. Brothers helped them don the robes. We sang a hymn. We prayed. The service was over.
The Abbot invited everyone to a reception in another building, but first, he said, it was important for the novices and the entire monastic community to have some time just to themselves. In complete silence the long line of men filed out of the sanctuary and into the adjacent abbey. The silence continued for a full minute. In the church none of us spoke a word. Suddenly a thunderous “Hooray!!!” resounded from the abbey. Old seekers, aged seekers welcomed the new.
Four youths sat at the feet of a Buddhist monk in Bangkok’s Wat Pho temple. Nearly half a century has passed, but I still see the light in their eyes. I knew nothing of the language they spoke, but I heard with complete clarity the eagerness in their questions and the warmth that pulsed through their teacher’s replies. They were seekers, all.
My grandfather, at age seventy, decided it was time to write down his personal credo. For nearly a hundred pages he wrestled with the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Westminster Confession. He was an attorney and a political scientist, not a theologian, but for him what a person believed was vital. For his own sake, if nothing else, he wanted to see where he stood. So he painstakingly deliberated upon God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Sacraments, the Bible, preaching (some of it quite bad, he noted), prayer, the communion of saints (which puzzled him because it sounded Roman Catholic), death, and the life everlasting. Not long after completing the effort his health weakened. By the time he died at eighty-four he could barely finish a sentence. Barely, except at mealtime. Then, the plate in front of him, he would give thanks and ask the blessing. This was never automatic, never rote. The words came out one by one, in perfect order, his thin voice filled as much with yearning as with gratitude.
An artist sent me a drawing of Jesus in the mail. It was just the head, done with pencil on a 4” x 6” card. The head was small and fierce, taking up barely half the card. Jesus’ hair shot out in all directions. His beard was thick, his chin and nose sharp, his forehead broad and deeply lined above massive eyebrows. His eyes locked onto whoever viewed the picture. When I received the card I stared at this intense Jesus and at first missed the words the artist had penciled heavily off to the side.
A few weeks before, I had seen samples of the artist’s work on a calendar while visiting a friend in Cleveland. The colors caught my eye, and I had worked through the calendar three times when my friend asked, “Would you like to meet the man?” We drove to his apartment the next morning. He lived with two aging shih tzus above an abandoned auto shop. The dwelling was packed with oils, pastels, and watercolors. His work hung on every inch of wall available, but the bulk of it he had stored in piles. I went through the piles. The man was of Armenian background and old Armenian scenes figured in much of what he did. Women danced in wildly colored dresses, crowds pressed, couples married, men strutted down sidewalks. In some piles flowers of all sizes opened outward. He’d painted landscapes and people on the streets of San Francisco where he had lived for many years. Against one wall leaned a larger-than-life canvas of Jesus. Jesus was stark and pale except for a huge blotch of red on each hand. Next to the bleeding Jesus tottered another pile of landscapes. I started to go through it. In the middle I found myself staring at an impressionist Jesus, then a bawdy scene of fully dressed men and women naked to the waist, then a small, more literal painting of Jesus, then more landscapes.
“I don’t know,” the artist said, “somehow now Jesus just keeps getting in here.” All this had been several weeks ago.
An hour after the drawing arrived in the mail, I looked at it for a second time. I saw once more Jesus’ stark, staring face. This time, though, my eyes drifted off to the lettering on the side. There, in heavy strokes, hung the words
Used with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers: www.wipfandstock.com.